Save democracy and support public education. Follow the money.

Reclaim Idaho is advancing a ballot question to raise up to $323 million a year in support of K-12 education. Even with a recent funding increase from the Legislature, advocates say that Idaho will likely remain last among the 50 states in per pupil spending, teachers will continue to leave, and the career/technical ladder will remain inadequate. Yet the question’s opponent, Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) not only wants to crush public education, it wants to crush democracy.

I learned something in 2016 in Massachusetts while exposing the dark money behind a school privatization ballot question from Families for Excellent Schools (FES): we need to unmask the hidden figures who are doling out the millions behind upbeat sounding fronts. In Massachusetts it was the Walton family and Boston hedge funders. In Idaho, it’s most likely Charles Koch and allies.

IFF’s biggest known subsidizers include Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, both vehicles for hiding money donated by Charles Koch and other anti-public education oligarchs. These operations allow wealthy individuals to scrub their identities from donations that go to unpopular causes.

According to the Idaho Statesman between 2010 and 2017 Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund donated $698,100 to IFF. Donors Capital Fund’s contributions amounted to up to 43 percent of IFF’s donations in a given year. (IFF’s president Wayne Hoffman denied receiving substantial contributions from Koch). IFF is a member of the Koch network-allied State Policy Network; from 2009 on, IFF received $313,350 from SPN. The Charles Koch Institute has donated directly to IFF.

Hoffman has boasted of the aid IFF has received from the Koch-related American Legislative Exchange Council. IFF has been a “Watchdog Partner” of the Franklin News Foundation, which has been underwritten by Donors Capital Fund, Donors Trust, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation. In 2016, IFF was a partner of the Charles Koch Institute.

As Kevin Richert and Blake Jones of the Idaho Education News reported, the Legislature recently took steps to address shortcomings in education support. Raises are coming for teachers and administrators. The Legislature added another $104 million into the career ladder. Teachers, administrators, and classified employees will see a $1,000 bonus. Many educators will see enhanced health benefits. There are new incentives to retain teachers in rural districts. The Legislature added $46.6 million to Idaho’s literacy program, encouraging districts to spend it on all-day kindergarten. IFF’s Hoffman wrote of the Republican Legislature and governor, “The leftists won this last legislative session.

In a 2019 op-ed for the Idaho Education News, Hoffman wrote “I don’t think government should be in the education business. It is the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today.” Hoffman is no fan of democracy either. He called the people’s vote for expanded Medicaid coverage in 2018 “mob rule at the ballot box.”

Luke Mayville of Reclaim Idaho explains that there will be tax increases, but only for individuals making over $250,000 per year, or couples earning over $500,000 a year. That flies in the face of IFF’s wishes and those of Charles Koch, who wants the lowest possible taxation and promotes school privatization at all levels.[1]

Here’s something else I’ve learned exposing dark money. Everyday people who benefit from public schools don’t like the machinations of the tax-dodging rich. It’s why oligarchs have to stay hidden.

Like IFF, Families for Excellent Schools had outsized influence on education policy in Massachusetts and New York. Uncloaking its true donors helped bring about FES’s overwhelming defeat on the ballot question. Then state regulators ordered FES to disclose all its dark money donors. Soon FES collapsed. It exists no more.

Save democracy and support public education. Follow the money.

[1] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Penguin, 2018), 137 (“it was [James] Buchanan’s and [Charles] Koch’s shared commitment to school privatization at every level that started a collaboration that deepened over the next two decades.”)

Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is a co-founder of blog and has received awards for his work on dark money from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He is the author of "Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization."

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